Michael Kubo joined me from Colorado Springs to discuss all things late—late modern architecture, late capitalism, late career choices, and latent desires that spring from the out-of-time sensations generated and perpetuated by the pandemic. Liston to our conversation here. We talk about Michael’s unusual career path, switching between architecture practice and publication as a path to academia; his backyard mandala, nestled between works by Barnett Newman and Michael Heizer; and the “toxic miasma of the endless metastasis of the city” that he confronts in his life and work in Houston, Texas. Michael is an incredibly focused and kinetic colleague. Hearing how he has confronted the notion of productivity during the pandemic, trying to create a work-life balance that includes self-care, buoyed my spirits. You can see an image of his “un-labyrinth,” a geometric form inscribed on the ground produced by a backyard walking practice, above.
Michael Kubo is Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator for Architectural History and Theory at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design, University of Houston. He was previously the Wyeth Fellow at the Center For Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C and associate curator for OfficeUS, the U.S. Pavilion at the 2014 International Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy. His recent co-authored publications include Imagining the Modern: Architecture and Urbanism of the Pittsburgh Renaissance (2019), Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (2015), and OfficeUS Atlas (2015). He holds a Ph.D. in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an M.Arch from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He is currently preparing a book on The Architects Collaborative and the authorship of the architectural corporation after 1945.
Ana María León joined me from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to discuss the role of decentering in her pedagogical practice. Listen to our conversation here. An architect from Guayaquil, Ecuador by way of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Ana María was inspired by historical and theoretical questions following what she describes as a very practical and pragmatic architectural education. Following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, during which a white nationalist killed anti-racist protestor Heather Heyer, Ana María became invested in scholarly collaborations that explore an architecture history focused on the role of race and space in the Americas. Following lessons from the Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative (FAAC) reading group that Ana María co-founded while a PhD student at MIT, she similarly helped launch the Space + Race reading list, which has since evolved into a curated collection of thematic readings—an extremely helpful resource for anyone who teaches about architecture, design, race, and place.
Ana María León is an architect and a historian of objects, buildings, and landscapes. Her work studies how spatial politics inform the modernity of the Americas. An assistant professor at the University of Michigan, León has cofounded several collaborations laboring to broaden the reach of architectural history, including the Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative, the Settler Colonial City Project, and Nuestro Norte es el Sur. A graduate of MIT’s program in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture, she is currently the Charles P. Brauer Faculty Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, and co-directs the Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop, “Decolonizing Pedagogies.” León sits on the board of the Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative, the Architecture Lobby, and Anales de Arquitectura, and is an editor-at-large at The Avery Review.
Since moving to Michigan, Ana María León has become interested in the architecture, planning, and politics of Detroit. She describes how, in Detroit, architecture was leveraged as a tool for violence; in the “aestheticization of violence,” built works hide their violent repurcussions under the veneer of beauty. She has worked on the project “Detroit Resists” with Andrew Herscher, which emerged in response to the US Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale. The project theorizes exhibition as intervention, using social media and digital technology to advance counter-political claims within popular architectural discourse.
My interview with Walker Downey proved too substantive to limit to just one episode of Dangerous History. You can listen to Part One here, and Part Two over here. Walker examines the intersection of “experimental music” and “sound art,” a transdisciplinary, technological practice that evolved over the decades between WWII and Vietnam. Together we discuss works that fall between the purview of art history and musicology, with a focus on the subversive nature of noise as a category of experience. The institutions and figures around which these compositions or performances accreted are considered alongside the determinative nature of media itself (magnetic tape, for example) in an attempt to determine their relative significance. A project about radio-as-art, on the radio, in two parts.
Walker Downey’s current research is focused on a cross-disciplinary network of American artists, musicians, and dancers that used media such as magnetic recording tape, FM radio, and transistor electronics to carry out experiments with electronic sound in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. At this time, new experimental milieus and stylistic vocabularies took shape within underground music studios, city discotheques, and independent radio stations as diverse practitioners converged around the creative affordances of particular media. He is interested in these hybrid traditions of experimental sound that exceed historical categories such as “sound art” and “electronic music.” As Walker’s research explores, these traditions were distinguished not only by their defiance of disciplinarity and medium-specificity, but by a politically driven engagement with understandings of technological “function” and “dysfunction,” “communication” and “interference” central to the intellectual climate of the Cold War.
Art Deco typography is ubiquitous in Portuguese cities. In many ways, it seems that the commercial areas of Porto and Lisbon ceased to evolve aesthetically at the moment António de Oliveira Salazar became President in 1932. His corporatist authoritarian government ruled until 1968. I’m very interested in the “lusotropical” Portuguese colonial project as part of my southern African research. This semester I’m writing about Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass and her Humanae project, matching the skin tones of her numerous subjects with pantone chart colors. More on that text soon… in the meantime, enjoy this font of fonts.
I was struck by a line in an article I read for my Harvard class, “Modern Speech and Other Kinds of Testimony,” by historian Megan Vaughan. The class, Themes in Modern African History, is taught by the formidable Caroline Elkins, who is generous with her time despite her demanding schedule, for which I am very grateful. The article is about the slippery nature of historical consciousness, and the ways in which the historian can unwittingly manipulate her subjects’ “identity.” Vaughan is interested in the missing pre-history of the Creole community in Mauritius, of which she writes:
“Creole intellectuals make the very valid point that their history begins on the island—their origins lie in métissage, in creolité itself, and not in a mythic origin moment which came before.”1
This sentence resonates with my own struggle to decipher and iterate my own historical identity. Like many Americans, I like to delve into the various family histories of past generations, which extend to many different ethnic and geographical origins. Yet despite the “truth” of this mixing, it is always assumed I have a European origin, and further it is assumed that I will myself have chosen a preferred ethnicity with which to identify. In the quote above, there is freedom: forget the past; you’re an American, with all the mixing that implies.
The Second Life of Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Afrofuturist Critique
(This is the first bit of a paper I wrote for my methods class in fall, 2013)
African artists born to a post-independence continent, curiously placed in the temporal limbo engendered by their new nations’ violently dynamic notions of future and past, are socially empowered as image-makers to realign, reshape, and rename the world. The African artist’s process is an enactment of his nation’s negotiation with modernity; the artist is an “historical agent capable of representing the modern condition in which he is working.” Using methods similar to Dadaist bricolage, Afrofuturism seizes upon this chronological purgatory as a site for uncanny cultural remixes. Science fiction narratives offer a compelling populist opening to such rewritten cultural autobiographies.
In Spaceship Icarus 13 (2008), Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda (born 1979, Luanda) harnesses Afrofuturist memes to present a vision of the future based on a reimagined past, channeling an unlikely combination of satire and utopianism, irony and hope. Spaceship Icarus 13—an architectural model, a story, and a series of eight photographs—”documents” the creation of Africa’s first space base and humanity’s first mission to the sun. Henda’s spaceship is a reappropriated item of totalitarian kitsch, a late 1970s era Soviet-designed mausoleum for Agostinho Neto, Angola’s Marxist-leaning first president. Within this mausoleum-cum-spaceship, enhanced in Henda’s narrative by icons of American consumerism and Angolan devastation—Budweiser and diamonds—the artist sends Neto’s ashes up to burn. The violence of this second destruction, from ashes to ashes, is both piercing and poignant. It encapsulates Henda’s artistic critique of Angola’s long civil war, its lost human potential, and its current political and economic climate.